Speech by the President of the Republic of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe, at the handover of the new building for the Ahmed Baba Institute

24 January 2009, Timbuktu, Mali

Your Excellency, President Touré, President of Mali;
Former President of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki;
Honourable Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Mali and South Africa;
Excellencies, Ambassadors and High Commissioners;
Your Worship, The Mayor of Timbuktu;
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am filled with pride as a South African, an African, and as a citizen of the world to be present here at the inauguration of a home for such priceless, rare and precious manuscripts that constitute the memory of our continent. This complements the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research (IHERI-AB), and serves as a tribute to a great son of this city and a legendary African scholar, famous far beyond the region.

I am moved simply to stand here in this historic city of Timbuktu because of its significance in the history of the African continent and its importance in world history. It is fitting that UNESCO has declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site.

We are also thankful that NEPAD has declared the conservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts its first cultural project. NEPAD``s involvement means that the New Plan for Africa``s Development is more than economic growth, infrastructure development and lifting our people out of poverty, important as all of these are.

It says that NEPAD is also about our history, our identity, our self-esteem, and our confidence in our future - because we have seen the greatness of our past.


I am confident that, inspired by these manuscripts of great scholarship, African scholars will take up the cudgels and seek to re-define the role of Africa in history.

In simple terms this event is not only imperative as one of the many cultural icons of our continent, but seminal in our work to make this, the 21st century, the African Century.

At the same time, this magnificent heritage should strengthen our efforts to rebuild our continent, to work for growth and development, fully aware that we can - despite the many impediments we face - emulate the grandeur of these great Africans who came before us.

Significantly, it is part of our efforts to elevate Africa, not only in the eyes of the world, but also in the eyes of Africans who may have succumbed to the notion of Africa``s historical inferiority, or who carry a demeanour of defeat, or who join the ranks of the Afro-pessimists who see no value in Africa``s past and hence no reason to contribute to Africa``s future.

More importantly, the African intellectual diaspora, who add value to the academies, the institutions, the governments, the foundations, and the societies outside of Africa, must not be seen, nor should they see themselves, as aberrations of African history, but as products of this great intellectual tradition that we come to honour here today.

As I stand here in this city, and feel the warmth of its people, and see the greatness of its architecture, and marvel at the vastness of the literary inheritance from great scholars, my emotions soar between great sadness and unbridled joy.

I feel sadness because of what has been done to Africa in pursuit of colonial goals that resulted in the destruction of our people, our societies and our heritage; and joy in the realisation that we have the foundations for our renewal, for our upliftment and advancement.

I see what former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Alpha Konare saw as we now stand among great mosques and humble dwellings that housed writers and poets, jurists and traders, mystics and mathematicians, theologians and scientists.

Surely in this lies the ingredients needed to rebuild our continent, not just economically, but in the psyche, the identity, and self esteem of every African.

We stand here today, as brothers and sisters, as an African family securing its heritage and legacy from the false claims of colonialism. We are confirming and affirming Africa``s contribution to human development.

Today we are displaying that not only do we have a rich tradition of oral communication, but we have a rich heritage of reading and writing, of literacy and literature, as contained in these manuscripts.

These manuscripts date back as far as the 13 Century and reflect a sophisticated literary culture. While many of them are Islamic religious texts, they expand into the natural sciences, mathematics, astronomy, social sciences, political and economic history, and the body of laws that governed the time.

The texts speak of taxation systems, medical procedures, legal interpretations, and observations which allowed humanity a glimpse into the cosmos.

The script of the texts is Arabic, but the languages incorporate local African languages like Hausa, Songhay and Fulfulde, once again demonstrating Africa``s capacity for literacy and a literary tradition.

Timbuktu is symbolic, not of a narrow Islamic or African civilisation, but of a civilisation that was the synthesis of what knowledge was available in the world then. More importantly, it was part of Africa``s contribution to the foundation of today``s civilisation.

Timbuktu stands tall– not as a signifier of the edge of the world, but as a reminder that Africa has been and again can be at the centre of human endeavour.

However, our challenge today is beyond the brick and mortar of a building. It is about harnessing Timbuktu for the African Renaissance that we strive for today.

Following a visit to Timbuktu by Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Alpha Konaré in November 2001, President Mbeki – who I am happy to say is with us here today - was deeply impressed by the manuscripts he saw at the Ahmed Baba Institute.

He pledged South Africa``s support for the efforts of the Mali Government to conserve this priceless heritage.

The very nature of the co-operation and partnership to this end is by itself a significant break from the paternalism of the past in managing the heritage, the legacy and the cultural icons of the colonized part of the world. Today, as a result of preservation by plunder, museums in Europe are the custodians of some of the significant antiquities of Africa.

The bilateral agreement between Mali and South Africa is underpinned by the Principles of keeping the legacy in Timbuktu and inviting the world to Timbuktu to see and study them; ensuring that the people of Mali themselves are empowered to preserve and conserve this heritage; and ensuring that the manuscripts are not a monument to colonial prowess, but to African achievement.

The Agreement makes provision for:

The conservation of the manuscripts and the training of Malian archivists and curators;

The raising of public awareness about the content of the manuscripts by way of research collaborations, academic conferences, publications and media coverage;

The collaboration on this project to construct a new building to house the manuscripts for posterity; and

Finally, the exhibition of the manuscripts to inspire Africans

(I would like to thank you, President Toure, for allowing the South African government to host an exhibition of manuscripts in South Africa in 2005 and more recently at the end of 2008).

Mr President,

This new building is a celebration of our African co-operation and friendship. It is our commitment to a common humanity.

As members of the United Nations, and various UNESCO bodies, South Africa and Mali continue to work towards a world characterized by a multilateral approach.

It is within this context that we seek to advance the renewal of the African continent and the attainment of the African renaissance.

South Africa champions the view that cultural diplomacy can indeed serve to create conditions of trust and dialogue within countries, and between nations, states and people.

We believe in the genuine exchange of views, respect among nations, and human development. This is a choice for peace and not war, for human solidarity and not antagonism.

Caring for books is not new to Timbuktu. We are not here to add a new library but rather to open an additional home for an already prestigious library.

Timbuktu has extensive experience of paper and ink and of poetry and prose that deserves to be conserved.

The texts produced in this city and preserved in the libraries can stand up proudly among the most famous libraries in the world.

This new addition to the Ahmed Baba Institute will provide a suitable archive for the storage and display of the manuscripts, and the conservation laboratory will preserve them in optimum conditions.

The building will provide administration offices for the staff, accommodation for visiting researchers, a public library for Timbuktu``s citizens, an auditorium for conferences and lectures, an outdoor amphitheatre for concerts and festivals, and a separate space for the reading of the Koran for members of the Sankoré mosque.


With these ambitious objectives in mind, nothing will impede the rekindling of the great tradition of African scholarship, research, debate, writing and teaching. Is this not an appropriate compass to which all African scholars – at home and abroad – must look, both for their inspiration, but also for their intent that AFRICA``S PRIDE MUST BE RESTORED!

There was no easy path to realizing this dream of putting up a building of this nature on the edge of the Sahara. And for that, let us thank all those who have been involved in the construction of this building. All the professionals and their companies deserve the warmest applause for their efforts.

I would like to make special mention of Target Project Management from South Africa and Sandy Construction from Mali for seeing the project through under trying circumstances.

The Mali officials in Bamako and Timbuktu, the officials in South Africa, the Malian workers on the site, the South African team based in Timbuktu who spent long periods away from their families, all deserve our thanks.

Let me also pay tribute to the Timbuktu Manuscripts Trust, led by former Minister in the Presidency Dr. Essop Pahad and Deputy Minister of Arts & Culture Ntombazana Botha. They spared no effort in raising most of the money for the costs of the building.

There are many individuals and companies in South Africa who donated generously to ensure the necessary funds were available for the new library to be built. We thank you warmly.

Ultimately, this building is a tribute to the collaborative venture of the people of South Africa and the people of Mali.

May this project be a model for future collaborative projects on the continent. May the legacy contained in these archives engender again the openness, generosity, and inquiring spirit of the times when the great scholars trudged the streets of Timbuktu and taught from their homes.

Finally, Timbuktu today reminds us "at the doors of learning and culture shall be open." (Freedom Charter, 1955).

Today in Timbuktu we take a giant step towards an ideal espoused in the Freedom Charter:

"All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands."

This project is the most marvellous fulfilment of the ideals of the Freedom Charter, and in that spirit, may the doors of this new building for the Ahmed Baba Institute be opened to all!

I thank you.